Suddenly Sergio

By Jason SobelNovember 1, 2011, 4:22 pm

The most important part of Sergio Garcia's second consecutive European Tour victory was neither his continued ball-striking brilliance nor his unforeseeable resurgence on the greens.

It was his fist-pump.

To be clear, it wasn’t the technical aspect of his celebratory form that was so meaningful. It was the emotion he displayed in the process.

When Garcia holed the clinching putt at Valderrama to win by one stroke on Sunday and back up a title at his hometown course eight days earlier, there was no subdued, benign reaction to his achievement. Instead, he elicited a mammoth roar accompanied by a ferocious fist-pump – the reflection of a man who wanted nothing more than to taste victory once again.

That may sound like the standard response for anyone who competes for a living, but it wasn’t always this way for Sergio. In order to truly appreciate the moment, we have to look at all of those moments before it when winning – and even just competing – meant so little.

One year ago, he was ensconced in a self-imposed leave of absence. If that sounds strange, it should. College professors take sabbaticals, not professional golfers. He wasn’t feeling passion for the game anymore, though, and so he went cold-turkey and stopped competing.

Then again, maybe it shouldn’t sound so strange. Garcia has never measured his self-worth by success, once responding to a question about the importance of winning a major championship by contending, “It's important, but it's not the main thing in my life. If I don't win a major championship, it doesn't mean that I'm going to be unhappy or less happy than I will be if I do.”

And so he stopped playing in pursuit of happiness. He spent quality time with family, celebrated friends’ birthdays and played soccer. He served as an assistant captain for the victorious European Ryder Cup team. He did everything but play golf.

When he returned, Garcia was hardly a relaxed, refreshed version of his former self. On the contrary, he was still an angst-ridden enigma who wasn’t completely positive that competing again served his best interests.

On a blustery day in New York City in February, during a promotional appearance for his equipment manufacturer, he manifested as what has so often been described as the stereotypical Sergio, which is to say he was surly, moody, petulant and whiny.

He was also honest to a fault, his long-ingrained method of failing to sugarcoat any subject still very much alive. This is a man who once suggested that the golf gods had robbed him of capturing the Open Championship. So often he was a public relations nightmare and a journalist’s dream.

Asked that day to handicap his break from the game, he confidently claimed, “It was great. It was awesome. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made.”

When prodded to elaborate, he added, “You get to travel a lot, you get to meet a lot of nice people, but at the same time you miss a lot of things to do. What people don't realize, they look at you and say, ‘He's only been playing for 11 or 12 years.’ But it's not true. I've been traveling and missing Christmas and missing friends' birthdays – things like that – since I was 12. So after a while, you do need a little bit of a break to kind of see things a little clearer.” Read between the lines and you’ll see someone who wishes that break had never ended.

Fast forward six months and Garcia is once again in the greater Metropolitan area, but his frame of mind is a world away from that previous encounter. His churlishness has been replaced by joviality; his angst disintegrated into serenity.

Once again, he speaks openly about his struggle to find a balance between his personal and professional lives, but he does so with a smile on his face. Rather than subsisting inside that vortex of pressure, there’s a sense that it is all a part of the past, a time in his life he can still discuss, but is no longer battling.

“I feel much better about myself,” he said in August, just before The Barclays. “I try not to take things as seriously. Don’t get me wrong – that doesn’t mean that I’m not trying and I’m not giving it my best out there, but that’s how I’m taking it. I give it my best and sometimes my best is not that good. I’ve just got to deal with it. And then when my best is in good shape, then I’m out there contending like we’ve done this year in four or five tournaments. I’m excited about it. I’m obviously enjoying the game a lot more than I probably did the last couple of years and I’m just looking forward to keep going in this same direction.”

At the time, it wasn’t difficult to foresee impending success for Garcia. He has now delivered on that premonition, claiming a pair of titles in consecutive weeks and ascending to 18th on the Official World Golf Ranking.

Sure, there may be technical parts of his game that are flourishing more than in the past. His drives may be going straighter and deeper, his iron shots may be more precise, his putting may be armed with more confidence.

Such talents have always endured for Sergio, though. His current success is all about desire and attitude; it’s about clearing mental hurdles in order to allow the physical gifts to thrive in competition.

That’s why his reaction on Sunday was so important. That celebratory fist-pump wasn’t just the culmination of triumph over a field of opponents; it was the culmination of triumph over himself. This is a man who has overcome multiple obstacles in the past 12 months, the least of which isn’t his ambition toward winning – and even just competing – both of which meant so little not so long ago.

When asked about this newfound perspective after his victory, he said, “I’m just happy with my year. We all know how difficult golf is. This is a working process; I’ll keep working on it, and trying hard and enjoying it.”

The talent of Sergio Garcia is obvious – always has been, always will be. If his enjoyment and desire remain, success will continue to follow.

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G-Mac has Ryder Cup on mind with Genesis in grasp

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2018, 2:12 am

LOS ANGELES – Graeme McDowell is four years removed from his last start in a Ryder Cup and golf is more than seven months away from this year’s matches, but then it’s never too early to start daydreaming.

Following a third-round 70 that left him tied for third place and just two strokes off the lead at the Genesis Open, McDowell was asked if the matches are on his mind.

“I feel like I've got a lot of things to do between now and getting on that team,” he said. “Standing here right now it's probably not a realistic goal, but if I continue to play the way I'm playing for the next few months, it may start to become a realistic goal.”

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

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McDowell began his week at Riviera Country Club fresh off four consecutive missed cuts and has drifted to 219th in the Official World Golf Ranking. But his play this week has been encouraging and the Northern Irishman has always relished the opportunity to play for Europe.

“Deep down I know I'm good enough, but I've got to show, I've got to put some results on the board, I've got to take care of my business,” he said. “The greatest experience of my career bar none, and I would love to play another couple Ryder Cup matches before it's all said and done.”

McDowell does have a potential advantage this year having won the French Open twice at Le Golf National, site of this year’s matches.

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Bubba on McGrady block: 'Just trying not to get hurt'

By Will GrayFebruary 18, 2018, 1:56 am

LOS ANGELES – A detour to the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game didn’t keep Bubba Watson from leading this week’s Genesis Open, although an on-court brush with Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady nearly derailed his chances for a third tournament win.

Watson enters the final round at Riviera with a one-shot lead over Patrick Cantlay after firing a 6-under 65 in the third round. The day before, the southpaw left the course around lunch time and headed across town to participate in the All-Star festivities, where during the celebrity game he tried to score 1-on-1 over McGrady.

Watson’s move into the lane went about as well as you’d expect given their five-inch height disparity, with McGrady easily blocking the ball into the stands. According to Watson, he had only one thought as McGrady came barreling towards him across the lane.

“When I saw him, all I saw was, ‘This is my moment to get hurt,’” Watson said. “This big tank is about to hit me, and I was like, ‘Just knock it into the stands. Just don’t touch me.’ So it worked out, he didn’t touch me so it was good.”

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

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Watson’s attempt went against his wife Angie’s advice to avoid the paint area, but it provided a fun moment for a player used to carving up fairways and greens – not to mention the guy who played 15 seasons in the NBA.

“Well, he’s got like just under 800 blocks for his career, so I gave him one more, you know?” Watson said. “It was just, it was a blast. I wanted to see how good he was, see if he could miss it. He hasn’t played in a while.”

Watson took some heat on Twitter from his PGA Tour peers for the rejection, but few were still laughing as he rocketed up the leaderboard Saturday with five birdies and an eagle. Now he has a chance to win this event for the third time since 2014 – even if he doesn’t plan to go toe-to-toe with McGrady again anytime soon.

“Some guys wanted to try to win MVP, so I was trying to pass it and let them have their fun and their moment,” Watson said. “I was just trying not to get hurt.”

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Spieth on third-round 69: 'Putter saved me'

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2018, 1:37 am

LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth has spent the last few weeks talking about his putting for all the wrong reasons.

Two weeks ago when he missed the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open he lost 3.76 shots to the field in strokes-gained putting, and last week he wasn’t much better.

It looked like more of the same at the Genesis Open when he lost about a half stroke to the field on Day 1 with 29 putts, but since then his fortunes on the greens have gotten progressively better.

“I thought each day last week I progressed,” said Spieth, who needed just 24 putts on Friday and moved into a tie for 20th after taking 26 putts on Day 3.

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

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Spieth said he started to feel things turn around at Pebble Beach after working with his swing coach Cameron McCormick and Steve Stricker, who has become something of a putting sounding board for players on Tour.

“I got set up really nice. I got really comfortable on the greens even though they were very difficult to putt last week and this week,” said Spieth, who rolled in a birdie putt of 14 feet at No. 12 and a par putt of 35 feet at No. 14. “Any putt, I either made it or I left it just short today. It was one of those days that with the way I struck the ball, it was an off day, but that putter saved me and allowed me to shoot the lowest score so far this week.”

Spieth’s third-round 69 is his best of the week and moved him to within seven strokes of the lead, which is held by Bubba Watson.

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Bouncing back: Watson seeks a third Riviera win

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2018, 1:25 am

LOS ANGELES – Yeah, but can Tracy McGrady smoke a 7-iron from 203 yards to kick-in range for eagle on Riviera Country Club’s opening hole?

The way Bubba Watson’s mind drifts there’s no telling if, as he began his day at the Genesis Open, he revisited his play from Friday night at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. If he did, it would have been an apropos conclusion after McGrady sent his weak floater into the cheap seats midway through the second quarter.

Either way, Watson made it clear playtime was over on Saturday. The eagle at the opening par 4 ½ sent Watson on his way to a third-round 65 and the outright lead at the Left Coast event that’s starting to feel like a second home for the lefthander.

In 11 starts at Riviera, Watson already has two victories. A third on Sunday could get folks talking about renaming the layout Bubba’s Alley. Or not.

What is certain is that Watson has emerged from a funk that sent him tumbling outside the top 100 in the world ranking and he’s done it in quintessential Bubba style.

If Friday’s detour to the celebrity game received worldwide attention it was only a snapshot of Watson’s Tinseltown itinerary. He taped a segment for Jay Leno’s Garage show, visited with Ellen DeGeneres and watched a taping of The Big Bang Theory. You know, L.A. stuff.

Oh, and he’s curved and carved his way around Riviera with signature abandon.

“You've got to hit shots from every different angle, you've got to move it right to left and left to right, so it's just fun,” said Watson, who also led by one stroke when he won here in 2016, his last victory on the PGA Tour. “Then the greens are the equalizer so it makes me look like I putt as good as the other guys.”

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

He “hammered” a 7-iron from 203 yards at the first to 1 ½ feet for his opening eagle, chipped in at the sixth to begin a run of four birdies in five holes and played the three par 5s in 3 under to move into a familiar spot after enduring his worst season on Tour in 2017 when he failed to advance past the second playoff event.

That he’s turned the tide in Los Angeles is as predictable as it is peculiar. Despite Watson’s record at the Genesis Open, Riviera wouldn’t seem to be the tonic for all that ails Bubba.

Ask a player - any player will do - the keys to playing Riviera and the answers range wildly from it being a bomber’s course to the need for ball-striking precision. But the word that comes up with regularity is "patience."

“Patience and pretty much just not being stupid, to be honest,” Justin Thomas said when asked the key to his third-round 67 that left him tied for eighth place. “Just stop trying to hit at pins with 5-irons and 6-irons, and when I hit in the rough, realize just try to make a par. When I get in places, when I'm out of position, realize that sometimes even bogey is what I need to make.”

While that thought dovetails with conventional wisdom, Watson’s not exactly known for his patience.

“Oh, for sure I do. Haven't you seen me in the last 12 years?” Watson laughed when asked if he had patience on the course. “The tougher the golf course, the more focus I have. The tougher the shot, I've been able to focus better. When I get my mind on something, I can focus and do pretty well at the game of golf.”

While Bubba drifts between artist and antagonist with ease, both on and off the golf course, his primary challenge on Sunday is the picture of thoughtful composure.

Patrick Cantlay, who returned to the Tour last season after struggling with back issues for years, began the third round with a share of the lead but quickly faded on the front nine. He rallied on the closing loop with birdies at Nos. 10, 11 and 18, where he capped his day with a 54-footer that assured him a spot in Sunday’s final threesome. Although he’s just 25 and playing his first full season on Tour, Cantlay’s approach to the game is patently different from Watson’s.

“I feel like if I can just engage and not worry about where I am on a particular hole or what's going on and I just engage and stay present in whatever I'm doing at that particular time, it all turns out better than what you would expect,” explained Cantlay, who attended nearby UCLA and played dozens of practice rounds at Riviera. “Making sure you stay present and having that confidence in yourself that if you just click in and focus, it all will be good and that's kind of the head space I'm in.”

It will be a clash of wildly contrasting styles on Sunday – Watson, who admitted he “(doesn’t) focus very well,” and Cantlay, whose approach to the mental side of the game borders on the clinical.

One player relishes the challenge of hyper-focus, the other is Bubba, but that’s not to say Watson is void of patience, only that he needs to be properly motivated.

“Like last night when Tracy McGrady was coming at me, I was focused on not getting hurt and I didn't, so it worked out,” Watson smiled.

And besides, T-Mac can’t bomb it like Bubba.